New US coronavirus case may be 1st from unknown origin

(AP) - As the worst-hit areas of Asia continued to struggle with a new virus, with hundreds more cases reported Thursday in South Korea and China, worries about infection and containment spread across the globe.

The coronavirus has now caused more new cases outside China, the epicenter of the outbreak, than inside the country. With Brazil confirming Latin America’s first case, the virus has reached every continent but Antarctica.

California officials are trying to locate everyone who was in contact with a woman thought to be the first known coronavirus case in the U.S. of unknown origin.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the case Wednesday night.

The woman is from Solano County, which lies between the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento.

Dozens of Americans who tested positive for the virus and were brought home from China or cruise ships have been treated at an air base in the county. But state officials say there is no evidence the woman had any connection to the base.

An email from UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento said the patient arrived last week but the CDC waited four days before testing for the virus.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says the state has about 200 testing kits for the virus and that federal officials are sending more to California.

The government announced the worrisome development shortly after a presidential news conference in which President Donald Trump said the U.S. is “very, very ready” for whatever the new coronavirus threat brings. He put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of overseeing the nation’s response.

Pence is moving to project calm in the role of chief coordinator of the government’s response to the new coronovirus, as the Trump administration tries to contain mounting public concerns and steep stock market declines.

Pence convened his first meeting of the Coronavirus Task Force on Thursday, one day after President Donald Trump made him the government’s point-person for the epidemic.

It came amid confusion over who was leading the inter-agency coordinating process to confront the virus. Pence said he was “leading the task force” but Azar would still hold the title of chairman.

Mike Pence to take lead on coronavirus

Pence has announced that the State Department’s global health doctor will coordinate the U.S. response to the coronavirus. He named Debbie Birx, the administration’s global AIDS coordinator, as the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

Birx joins an existing coronavirus task force led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar and will report to Pence. She was nominated to her State Department post by President Barack Obama.

Trump also pushed back against criticism that his administration isn’t doing enough to meet the coronavirus threat. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are calling for much more money than the $2.5 billion the White House has requested.

The president is facing a critical challenge as he tries to grapple with the outbreak: He must ask Americans to believe him even as he and some of his top advisers have contradicted government scientists in playing down the threat. Trump has clashed repeatedly with scientists in his own administration and tends to see any crisis through the lens of his own reelection chances.

Leaders puzzling over how to keep the new virus from spreading are taking new steps around the globe to try to limit the illness’ reach.

Saudi Arabia is cutting access to Islam’s holiest sites, Japan is shuttering schools nationwide and airports across Latin America are looking for signs of sick passengers.

Some countries are warning people to obey containment measures, with Singapore prosecuting a couple it says lied about their movements and South Korea passing newly strengthened punishments for those violating self-isolation rules.

The virus keeps spreading to new places around the world, with the number of infected people hovering around 82,000.

Whistleblower: Feds helping evacuees lacked virus protection

A government whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging that federal workers did not have the necessary protective gear or training when they were deployed to help victims of the coronavirus evacuated from China.

The complaint deals with Health and Human Services Department employees sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California to assist evacuees from China.

The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates personnel issues, confirmed Thursday it has received the complaint and is investigating.

Was U.S. ready for coronavirus evacuees? Whistleblower says no

South Korean virus cases jump again, now exceeding 2,000

South Korea reported 256 additional cases of a new coronavirus, raising the total in the country to 2,022.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 231 of the new cases were in the southeastern city of Daegu and its surrounding province.

A large cluster of cases have been connected to a Daegu church, and health workers have been testing thousands of its members.

The global count of those sickened by the virus exceeds 82,000, with China still by far the hardest-hit.

Its daily increases, however, are continuing a downward trend. It reported 327 new cases and 44 deaths in its Friday update.

Pope cancels visit with Rome priests for ‘slight’ illness

Officials say Pope Francis is sick and he skipped a planned Mass with Rome clergy across town on Thursday.

The Vatican said the 83-year-old pontiff had a “slight indisposition” and would proceed with the rest of his planned work on Thursday.

But officials say Francis “preferred to stay near Santa Marta,” the Vatican hotel where he lives.

There was no word from the Vatican about the nature of his illness, but the pope was seen coughing and blowing his nose during the Ash Wednesday Mass.

It comes amid an outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy that has sickened more than 400 people, almost all of them in the north. Rome had three cases, but all three were cured.

Italy is changing how it reports coronavirus cases and who will get tested in ways that could lower the country’s caseload even as an outbreak centered in northern Italy spreads in Europe.

Italian authorities said Thursday that from now on they would distinguish between people who test positive for the virus and patients showing symptoms of COVID-19 disease.

They say the majority of the 528 people who tested positive for the virus in Italy aren’t actually sick.

At the urging of the World Health Organization, Italy also is distinguishing between positive virus tests reported at a regional level and results confirmed by its National Institute of Health.

South Korea, US postpone annual military drills due to virus

The South Korean and U.S. militaries postponed their annual joint drills out of concerns over a viral outbreak that has infected soldiers in both countries’ armed forces, put many troops in quarantine and closed base facilities.

Twenty-two South Korean soldiers and one American service member in South Korea have tested positive for the new coronavirus.

South Korea has already suspended some unilateral field training, placed 9,990 troops under quarantine and banned most of its enlisted soldiers from leaving their bases. The U.S. military closed some amenities at several bases and was urging its personnel to avoid handshakes and large gatherings if possible.

South Korea reported 171 more cases of the new virus Thursday, mostly in the southeast, bringing its total number of infections to 1,766. Its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 115 of the new cases came from the southeastern city of Daegu, the country’s fourth largest city, where more than 1,100 infections have been reported.

The country also reported 13 deaths of virus patients so far.

Paper: Ex-spokeswoman for Iran hostage-takers has new virus; Saudi Arabia halts pilgrimages

A state-owned newspaper in Iran says Masoumeh Ebtekar, a vice president in the Islamic Republic and a spokeswoman for the 1979 hostage-takers, has the new coronavirus.

The report Thursday came from the English-language IRAN daily newspaper via its Twitter account. Ebtekar was known during the hostage crisis as “Mary.”

The report comes as other top officials in Iran’s Shiite theocracy have caught the virus.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has banned foreign pilgrims from entering the kingdom to visit Islam’s holiest sites over the new coronavirus, potentially disrupting the plans of millions of faithful ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and as the annual hajj pilgrimage looms.

The extraordinary decision stops foreigners from reaching the holy city of Mecca and Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina.

The decision shows the concern about the outbreak potentially spreading into Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich monarchy stakes its legitimacy on protecting Islam’s holy sites.

Experts are concerned Iran may be underreporting cases and deaths, given the illness’ rapid spread from the Islamic Republic across the Persian Gulf.

Iran announced Thursday 26 deaths among 245 confirmed cases of the virus. It was a significant increase in the number of known cases.

Iran Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour gave the new toll on Thursday in a televised news conference. He said the large number in new cases came from more labs now testing for the virus. He said there could be other large increases in the coming days.

As the coronavirus spreads across the Middle East, so is the scrutiny and criticism of Iran. Iran has seen 26 people die from the virus, and many of its regional rivals blame it for mishandling the crisis. The criticism has fallen along familiar political fault lines. Iran’s neighbors have all announced measures to cut links with the country, either completely closing their borders and suspending air traffic or limiting travel. Blaming Iran for the outbreak increases Iran’s isolation and also comes as both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have encouraged the harder line against Tehran that has been taken by U.S. President Donald Trump.

New coronavirus reaches Latin America; first case in Brazil

Latin America saw its first confirmed case of the new coronavirus when Brazil’s government announced that a 61-year-old man who traveled to Italy this month had the virus.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday that the Brazilian man had spent two weeks in northern Italy’s Lombardy region on a work trip, where he contracted the contagious virus.

With Brazil reporting the first case of the COVID-19 virus, neighboring countries and other nations around Latin America are attempting to block the possible arrival of the virus.

Peru, for example, is maintaining a team of specialists working around-the-clock shifts at Jorge Chávez International Airport. Argentina is calling on citizens to immediately report any flu-like symptom. Puerto Rico’s government has established a task force charged with creating guidelines to be followed in the event of the virus reaching the U.S. territory. And Chile has announced a health emergency and measures including the purchase of millions of masks and protective outfits for health workers.

Japan to close schools nationwide to control spread of virus

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he asked all elementary, middle and high schools to remain closed until spring holidays begin in late March to help control the spread of the new virus.

The measure comes amid growing concern about the rise in the number of untraceable cases in northern Japan and elsewhere. Japan now has more than 890 cases, including 705 from a quarantined cruise ship.

Officials in Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido said earlier Thursday that they were closing all 1,600 elementary and middle schools in the island prefecture, with the governor saying the coming one to two weeks are crucial in fighting the virus.

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